These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.
And so, against this backdrop, Richard Kimble spent four years as the most wanted man in America, a high-profile escapee trying to stay one step ahead of the law, but seemingly doomed to remain one step behind the man responsible for his predicament.
Through the course of those four years, Kimble had many opportunities to fade into the background, to blend in with his surroundings in such a way that he might be able to stop running. America is a big country after all, and in those pre-Internet days it was even bigger. Without the instant recognition that social media brings, Kimble quite likely could have found a place – Mayberry, North Carolina for example – that would have been far enough out of the way that he could relax for awhile. After all, he’d met and helped enough people during his travels that a virtual underground railroad existed, dedicated to helping him escape. It’s not hard to imagine one of his benefactors helping him get to a place where he’d really be out of reach, a country like Argentina, where he’d be able to practice medicine, grow a beard, perhaps remarry and settle down. Start a new life.
But Richard Kimble didn’t want a new life. He wanted his old life back, or as much of it as was possible.
It wasn’t enough for Kimble to be “free,” in the sense that any man running from the police is ever free. Staying out of the death house was good, but only as a means to an end. And that end was to prove his innocence.
But there would have been that sticky little matter of the murder conviction remaining on the record – if not officially, at least in the minds of many. What Kimble wanted was to prove his innocence, that he was not a good man who’d made a mistake but an innocent man who had suffered due to the mistakes of American justice. And in that effort to clear his name, Richard Kimble was willing to risk his life. After all, if living was the only thing that mattered, a good attorney probably could have gotten the original charge reduced to second-degree, if Kimble had only been willing to plead. But sometimes it’s more important to do the right thing, to fight for the truth, than to simply go on living. For without truth, what good is life?
By asking that question, even unintentionally, The Fugitive was perhaps the most existential series ever seen on TV to that time. Its premise contained a delicate balance: a hero on the run, running both away from and toward something at the same time. And those two things he sought – escape and vindication – could only come from the same source.
I’ve written in the past about how revolutionary, and controversial, The Fugitive was. In an era before Vietnam, before Watergate, when authority was presumed to be right, we had a man whom the system had failed. The police were wrong, the judge and jury were wrong, and after Kimble had escaped we rooted for him to evade the police, cheered those who willingly broke the law in order to help him, imagined that we would have done the same thing as they did had we been in their position. As I say, radical stuff. But even beyond that, the show touched on deeper questions. Who was Kimble, really? Every episode found him in a different place, working under a different name. The jobs he held – trucker, rancher, laborer – were not those for which he’d been educated, and it generally didn’t take long before people saw that he was a man capable of far more than what he was doing. Having changed his appearance, his name and his profession, one couldn’t help but think that Kimble would sometimes lie awake in bed wondering what had become of that man he had always thought himself to be. Even if he were to clear his name, to find the one-armed man and bring him to justice, could he ever be that man again? Could he, in the hoary clichés that are nonetheless true, learn once again to believe, to trust, to love?
The series chose to establish from the outset that Kimble was innocent, that he had not killed his wife.* But was he truly innocent of his wife’s death? Had he not stormed off after their latest argument, he would have been there when the break-in occurred, and perhaps saved her life. Was he, in some sense, responsible for what had happened? And how did that jibe with his own self-image?
*Had this series been made today, not as a revival but as a brand-new idea, I think it’s likely that the producers would have left the issue of Kimble’s innocence an open question. Sure, the premise would go, Kimble claims to be innocent. He says he saw a one-armed man. And many of the people he runs into believe his story. But is it really true? It would have made a fascinating premise, the idea that we don't know for sure, but I suspect that back then having as your series protagonist a man who might actually be guilty of murder would have been a very tough sell. After all, a man wrongly convicted by the system was radical enough.
To its credit, the series didn’t often get bogged down asking these questions – had it done so, it could have lapsed into a Bergmanesque morass of didactic self-doubt that would have slowed each episode down to a painful crawl. But even if they weren’t directly acknowledged they were there nonetheless, hanging over Kimble’s every action (and present in David Janssen’s brilliantly understated portrayal), and their existence only added to the richness of the show’s premise.*
*Along with its presentation of an America that doesn’t really exist anymore, a trait it shares with Route 66. Watching it, one can see, as if frozen in amber, just how rich that lost world was – while, at the same time, how much of it remains timeless.
|Kimble, with Gerard's gun, tracks down|
the One-Armed Man in the final episode
*Or driving, in his case.
And because it doesn’t, we’re returned to one of the questions we started with: what is freedom? Will Kimble ever be free of the nightmares of his time in jail and on the run? Will he ever not have that momentary flash of dread every time he hears a police siren? Will he be able to cope with the fame and notoriety of having once been America’s Most Wanted, of having people who see him not as a pediatrician but as a symbol, not a man but a myth? Will the new relationship he’s apparently embarking on be a happy one, or will it crumble from the pressures applied by a past that can’t be undone?
One gets the feeling that Richard Kimble’s real story is just beginning, and that this new chapter will prove as difficult for him as the one just concluded. It would make a fascinating series, a different series. But in the end, even with the same characters, it wouldn’t have been The Fugitive. And given that The Fugitive remains one of television’s greatest series, we certainly have no room to complain.
Next week: He's the greatest detective who ever lived - just ask him.
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